What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Humanity’s arrogant attempts to control the sea—captured in one photograph.

A house in Rockaway Beach, New York, destroyed by Hurricane Sandy


Photo: Randy Lemoine

Take a good look at this photo—snapped last December by the marine biologist John Dindo on the west end of Dauphin Island, Alabama—and you can see almost everything that’s wrong about building homes along the coastline in this climate-changed, hurricane-prone, post-Sandy world. You can even make a game of it, if you want—sort of like one of those spot-the-error puzzles you find on the children’s placemat menus at Red Robin. It’s easy to play along: Just print out the image and draw a big red circle around all the things that make no sense whatsoever.

Here’s what I circled:

1. It’s obvious that this oversized house was built on an untenable spot. It’s practically asking to be flooded by the next major storm or taken out by the next hurricane. But what I’m really interested in is the owner’s second mistake—the one that ended up compounding the first one. In an attempt to protect his highly vulnerable castle, he has constructed his own private seawall around it. This seawall—which encircles (or rather ensquares) the house like a frontier fortification (and appears to be made out of Lincoln Logs)—is doing a good job. So far. The problem is that the job it’s doing isn’t one of protection: One look at the wall reveals that it wouldn’t stand a chance of holding back even a half-assed storm, let alone a full-on hurricane. It is, however, doing a terrific job of destroying the neighboring public beach.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” wrote Robert Frost. But good seawalls don't. The act of erecting a barrier to keep the ocean from encroaching on your property, while undoubtedly framed by this homeowner as a defensive maneuver, is in fact an aggressive one. Aggressive to whom, you ask? To whomever or whatever happens to be downdrift of that barrier—because water, to cite another line from Frost’s famous poem, is in fact the very “something there is that does not like a wall.” And whenever it encounters one, water does the sensible thing: It moves around it and keeps on flowing.

2. The wall isn’t just ineffective; it’s illegal. Dindo, a scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, and his former boss, marine biologist George Crozier, point this out in an article published in the journal Coastal Care. This homeowner and many others have managed to get around Alabama’s clearly worded laws by skillfully employing euphemism. As they put it, while “seawalls on the Gulf beaches are prohibited under the State’s Coastal Plan, apparently sand retention systems are not.”

To which the poetic rejoinder can only be: Fine. With apologies to Mr. Frost, “Something there is that does not like a sand-retention system.”

3. Can we stop talking about the wall for just a second while I put a big, red, accusatory circle around the house itself? Over the last seven years of traveling up and down the Atlantic Coast’s beaches and barrier islands, I’ve seen all kinds of houses. I’ve strolled under the stilted legs of condemned homes on low-tide flats, looking like abandoned space stations drifting through the cosmos. I’ve examined storm-smashed residences that seem as if they’ve taken repeated hits from a wrecking ball. I’ve even seen homes pulled from the shore by a hurricane and sent to sea, where they float like listing ships.

I thought I had seen it all—until I saw this house at the end of the public beach on Dauphin Island. Those other homes, in their various states of precariousness or ruin, reflect the arrogance of a belief that living on the water is some kind of inalienable right, and expose our ignorance of how barrier islands and the sea interact physically. But in this house, all that arrogance and ignorance is distilled. One of my writerly preoccupations over the last decade has been exploring the ways we rationalize our decisions to build next to the ocean. My mentor in this undertaking has been coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey. The former Duke professor has dedicated much of his life to educating the public about the dangers that can, and frequently do, result whenever rising seas and hurricanes combine with the human tendency to erect large, immovable buildings along the shoreline—buildings that will inevitably require “protection” in the form of walls, jetties, and sandbags.

To me, the house in this photograph stands out like a giant exclamation point at the end of one of Dr. Pilkey’s warnings.

4. What is not as obvious in this photo is that the tiny bit of sand remaining in front of the neighboring house isn’t natural, native sand but rather sand shipped in from elsewhere. If it weren’t for the millions of pounds of imported sand that have been dumped onto this stretch of beach at some point, each of the houses in this photograph would be long gone. The practice known as “beach nourishment” is as commonplace nowadays as it is expensive and prophylactically insufficient. (Since adding new sand doesn’t do anything to alter the fact that waves keep coming, the process must be repeated over and over again, indefinitely.) That it actually “nourishes” nothing beyond our misguided belief that we can assert control over the ocean is beside the point.

The backstory behind Dauphin Island’s latest infusion of foreign sand turns out to be a fascinating example of collective sneakiness. I first visited Dauphin while blogging for onEarth during the 2010 BP spill, when islanders announced that they had cleverly solved the problem of their eroding beachfront. They managed to convince Alabama’s governor to use a portion of emergency cleanup funds to pile new sand in front of their homes—nominally to protect the beach from encroaching oil, but actually to protect property owners from the advances of a bigger enemy: the sand-hungry sea. In the end, the gift of all that new sand bought residents a few years—but as you can see above, the ocean and the coastal inhabitants are now poised for a wet reunion.

5. To see this next mistake, you’ll need to take a bird’s-eye view of the island. You might even have to bring time-lapse technology into it. From high above—and over a period of time—you would see that the western end of Dauphin is really no more than a great big moving sandbar. Moreover, you’d see that the houses along its shoreline serve to impede the island’s natural “movement,” whereby wind and storms blow sand from Gulfside beaches over to Bayside beaches in a sequence that allows the island to reshape itself and grow in an organic, ongoing game of hopscotch. This ancient geological process can’t take place when you arrest the windblown transfer of sand by putting up large buildings and protective infrastructure. In effect, you end up killing the island to save a few houses.

6. Is there a way to draw a big red circle around the concept of hubris?

Because that, when you get right down to it, turns out to be the biggest error in this photograph.

I understand the desire to live near the water. I, myself, am a creature of the coasts, and I know the pleasure of waking up to the sound of the waves, of watching children play on the sand, of having a cocktail after a day spent in the sun, with the sea salt coating your skin.

But if the sea is our neighbor, how about we start paying it a bit more neighborly respect? What if we were to change our coastal-living M.O. by backing up just a little for once, instead of always jutting our chests forward, architecturally speaking? What if we were to listen to the sea, to try to understand how it has worked with the land for millions of years, instead of fooling ourselves into thinking we can control it or block it?

* * *

I’ve been critical of Dauphin Island in this piece, but I should end by saying that when I last visited, in January, I found great beauty there. Record colds had swept in from the northwest, providing a windswept spectacle of diving pelicans and circling dolphins going after the same fishy dinner. The dunes sculpted themselves in front of me and bruised-looking clouds raced overhead.

And so I’d like to use a different color pen to circle something that is very much right about Dauphin. Though the public beach I was on had clearly been “nourished” with imported sand, the absence of any houses on it meant it could listen to what the sea had to say—that it was willing to play by the old geological rules. I left the beach on that cold day lifted by its beauty and commensurately troubled by the fatuous assault made on it by the seawalled house I spied at its end.

I admit to finding the house in this photograph to be quite ugly, but I’ll also admit that there’s something paradoxically beautiful about the way it illustrates a powerful truth. Build on the shore, and you must agree to work with the ocean, move with the ocean, live with the ocean’s realities. Ignore this truth and—despite your best intentions—you’ll become a destroyer, not a protector. Ignore this truth and you will destroy your own home, too.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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